Yes, several lifetimes seem to have transpired between now and the release of 1987’s classic Dirty Dancing.
How long ago was it? You may have first seen this movie on VHS. Heck, it was released on Betamax! 1987 seems a world away. And the 1963 in which the film was set is even further in the mist. And the ways that women, women’s rights, and abortion rights in particular have been treated has changed radically over that time. And not all of those changes have been for the better.
Dirty Dancing was the first time many of us saw the subject of abortion addressed realistically in a movie. One of the main plotlines involves a character who has to undergo a back-alley abortion in the pre-Roe v Wade world of 1963. Shockingly, this depiction is also one of the LAST honest portrayals of an abortion in a major movie. As Dirty Dancing screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein says, “We went through them all, and it turned out that since Dirty Dancing, all the radical feminist movies about unwanted pregnancies ended up with the woman deciding to have the baby after all. So there really weren't any legal abortions in films in the last 30 years.”
Society was more accepting of forthright discussions of abortion back in Reagan-era 1987 than they are in today’s hyper-polarized world! As Bergstein remembers: “They didn't really notice [the abortion plotline]….Nobody cared enough to even fight with me about it but they thought it was a little foolish to put it in. Now, of course we know that Roe v. Wade is hanging by a thread.”
Bergstein says Dirty Dancing showed girls in the 80’s what the pre-Rowe world was like: “… young women, when the movie came out in '87, would have thought [having an abortion] was like, going to Planned Parenthood or having an appendectomy. They wouldn't have understood exactly what would happen because they were in that little bubble of total safety.”
Today, as we know, that bubble is under constant attack. As the National Abortion Federation pointed out, just like the character Penny in the movie, “many women still struggle to afford the cost of their care and have to borrow money from others, they face challenges getting a ride and someone to go with them to their appointment, and they have to figure out how they can avoid losing their job for taking time off from work.” And anti-choice lawmakers keep trying to make those obstacles even worse.
But now you can do your part to help lift abortion rights, and watch a great movie in the process! Lady Parts Justice League invites you to partake in a Week of Action culminating in a 30th anniversary Dirty Dancing watch party. You can help support Planned Parenthood, pressure elected leaders, and join with others to discuss abortion access. And yes, that world of Dirty Dancing is extremely white, so we’ll be discussing how women’s issues disproportionately affect poor women and women of color. Join us! Nobody puts women in a corner!